Santiago Cathedral: origin and history

The Cathedral of Santiago, the destination of all pilgrims, has a long history. A history nearly as old as the Camino de Santiago. In fact, its origin dates back to the discovery of the remains of Santiago the Apostle.

History of the Santiago Cathedral

In our blog on the Camino de Santiago we have already dedicated a post to the  architectural richness of the largest temple in Spain dedicated to Santiago the Apostle. In it, we already gave a brief history about the origins of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

In this article we want to delve into the historical facts that have marked the evolution of the Cathedral of Santiago, from its primitive construction, in the 9th century, to the impressive Cathedral that can be observed today. Continue reading, and discover all the historical details related to the history of the Cathedral of Santiago: the heart of the city of Compostela.

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The origin of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

In 823 a hermit, known as Pelayo (or Paio) observed flashes that came from the depths of the forest. After observing them for several days, Pelayo informed Teodomiro,  the Bishop of Iria Flavia, about the event.

Together they began to investigate where the lights came from. This is how they discoveredthe Marmaric Ark, the Roman mausoleum that guarded the remains of Santiago the Apostle.

It had fallen into oblivion after the death of the two disciples who guarded the saint’s remains, since his body was buried in Galicia, back in 44 BC. Over time, the Marmaric Ark had been covered over by earth.

If you want to know more about the death of the apostle and how his remains came to Galicia, you can consult the post we dedicate to the story of St James the Apostle. In it we explain everything about the life and death of the saint.

Since the discovery was made thanks to the glowing lights observed by the hermit, the flashes were interpreted as divine signs. This led to the place being called Campus Stellae (Campo de Estrellas/ Field of stars), from which the current name of Compostela comes.

When Bishop Teodomiro informed the monarch of the time, Alfonso II, he soon embarked on a journey on foot from Oviedo, to confirm the discovery with his own eyes. After noting that the remains that were there belonged to the saint, he ordered the construction of a small church to guard the tomb, on the Marmaric Ark.

Origin of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

This temple was the origin of the Cathedral of Santiago. From there, the church was expanded and reformed, until the present Cathedral was reached.

History of Santiago Cathedral

Therefore, to understand the history of the Cathedral of Santiago, it is necessary to speak about the four primitive temples that preceded the present basilica. Here, we will talk about each of them.

Marmaric Ark (44 B.C.)

In 1879, during excavations carried out in the apse of the Cathedral of Santiago, the remains of the first tomb of Santiago the Apostle were found: The Marmaric Ark. This fact allows us, today, to locate the origin of the history of the Cathedral of Santiago in this arc itself.

Today it is known that this mausoleum had an eight metres long plant on each side and with a rectangular central body, built with stone ashlars. The altar was formed by a smooth slab, placed on a stone shaft.

During the excavations the presence of a portico with columns and exterior walls made of masonry was also observed. The lid of the apostle’s tomb was decorated with mosaic edging.

823 A.D: The Church of Alfonso II

Many scholars place the origin of the history of the Cathedral of Santiago in the church that Alfonso II ordered to be built, after the discovery of the tomb. This is because it was from that moment, when the history of the Cathedral of Santiago began as a pilgrimage destination.

However, the church that Alfonso II ordered to be built respected, in great part, the structure of the Marmaric Ark. He kept the old cell of the tomb, though he had the columns demolished, and with a nave-shaped wall, he closed the original temple and roofed it with wood.

899: The Church of Alfonso III

The growing number of pilgrims arriving there during that time at the temple, guarding the tomb of the saint forced, during the reign of Alfonso III, an enlargement of the church. A third temple was then erected to guard the burial of Santiago the Apostle.

The third temple in the history of the Cathedral of Santiago was much larger than the previous and pre-Romanesque style. Its structure was formed by a floor with three naves, where the old church was integrated into the presbytery. Therefore, the tomb of the apostle and his disciples was not touched.

At the head of the temple, an altar was erected in honour of San Salvador and on the sides, one dedicated to St. John and another to St. Peter. According to history, the consecration of this third forerunner temple of the Cathedral of Santiago took place in 899.

1000: The Church of Bishop Pedro de Mezonzo

During the summer of 997, the city of Santiago de Compostela was attacked by the leader of the Caliphate of Cordoba, Almanzor. The assault came after Bishop Pedro de Mezonzo evacuated its inhabitants, on suspicion of an imminent attack by the Muslims.

Almanzor and his army burned down the church that Alfonso III had donated. Luckily, they respected the tomb of Santiago the Apostle, which was in the presbytery inside the church that Alfonso II had built and protected by the Marmaric Ark.

That the tomb of the apostle was not consumed by the flames, allowed the tradition of the Camino de Santiago to be preserved. But it forced the construction of a fourth temple to guard the tomb: the fourth in the history of the Cathedral of Santiago.

The bells of the ancient temple were also saved. These were taken hostage by the Muslims and transported to Cordoba.

1075: The definitive temple

In the years of splendour on the Camino de Santiago, it was common for many pilgrims to sleep inside the church, having arrived in Compostela. This, coupled with the growing popularity of the Jacobean pilgrimage, meant that the temple was far too small to accommodate the large numbers of worshippers.

In 1075, under the command of King Alfonso VI the Bravo and with the impulse of Bishop Diego Peláez, the first stone was laid for the construction of a new temple that guarded the remains of the Apostle Santiago. The definitive church in the history of the Cathedral of Santiago.

Subsequent and numerous renovations have been undertaken after this time, but the floor plan that the Cathedral of Santiago presents today, corresponds to the temple of 1075. This fact may lead to affirmation that the origin of the Cathedral of Santiago dates back to this date.

History of contruction of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

The church that was built was in a Romanesque style and its design was based on the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse. The construction was mainly carried out in stone.

Construction history of the Santiago Cathedral

The consecration of the church that began to be built in 1075 did not occur until 1211. This long construction period is explained by the numerous political intrigues and architectural difficulties at the time.

Beginning of the works

As explained in the Codex, the beginning of works was under the supervision of the Master Bernardo El Viejo. Under his command was his deputy, Galperinus Robertus and about 50 stonemasons.

This team advanced with the works during the first decade of construction of the Cathedral of Santiago. Later, in 1088, Bishop Diego Peláez was dismissed and the works were paralyzed.

The times of Diego Gelmírez

Five years later, Diego Gelmírez, the new diocese administrator, and Dalalmacio, the new bishop, gave a strong impetus to the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago. The man in charge of the work on this occasion was Master Esteban.

Master Esteban leaves

In 1101, the master of works left the city. At that time, the walkways in the chapels were finished and work had begun on the façade of the Platerias Door.

Early 12th century

During the first half of the 12th century, the works progressed regularly. On several occasions, stops took place for the lack of financial resources, but thanks to the large number of donations received by the temple, it was possible to quickly resume the works.

During this period, much of the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago developed well, such as the arms of the cross and six sections of the nave. The Platerias Door and the Azabacheria Door are from this time.

The Platerias Door was completed in 1104, but again the history in the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago suffered a setback. A fire originating during a popular revolt caused serious damage to the Azabacheria Door, forcing it to be rebuilt.

The decorative elements of this, which were saved from the fire, were added to the Platerias Door. That is why, at present, you can see a strange ornamental ensemble on this façade of the Cathedral of Santiago.

Second half of the 12th century: the work of Mateo

The place where the Cathedral of Santiago stands presents a strong inclination over the ground. This caused structural problems that threatened the collapse of the temple to emerge before works were terminated.

To solve the tendency of displacement caused by the slope was a great challenge for the master builders of the time. It was under the rule of Ferdinand II of León, in 1168, that one of the builders that would most influence the history of the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago was incorporated into the work: Mateo.

Master Mateo was an exceptional architect and sculptor at the time. His ingenuity and advanced knowledge of science, brought from France, helped to find solutions to the serious structural problems affecting the Cathedral of Santiago.

The French builder ordered the base of the Cathedral and its old façade to be torn down. Instead, he designed a huge portico that towered over a crypt. This two-storey structure clearly responded to the unevenness of the terrain, which was reinforced with two towers that functioned as buttresses.

However, Mateo’s great legacy in the history of the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago is the Portico of Glory, completed in 1180. One of the richest sculptural works in European Romanesque art.

13th century: consecration of the church

Finally, it can be said that the history of the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago concludes in 1211, at which time the church was consecrated. By that date, the Camino de Santiago had already achieved so much popularity that the Cathedral of Santiago already had the privilege of celebrating the Holy Year.

History of renovations in Santiago Cathedral

The history of works in the Cathedral of Santiago does not end with its consecration. The prosperity that reached the city of Santiago de Compostela during the years of splendour on the Camino de Santiago, led to a wide number of renovations.

All of them were intended to preserve and beautify the temple, although some ended up significantly modifying its structure. Below we tell you some of the most important renovations.

15th century

The structure of the Nuestra Señora de Blanca Chapel is renovated. The Communion Chapel was also built.

16th century 

The exterior doors of the Cathedral are put in place. This modification changed the historical use of the Cathedral.

Until that time the temple remained open day and night, so many pilgrims slept inside the Cathedral. From 1768, it was forbidden to sleep inside.

17th and 18th century

In 1694, construction of the Chapel of Pilar began and, in 1700, the last works of the Fachada de la Quintana were completed.

We could carry on forever talking about all the renovations that the Cathedral of Santiago has undergone throughout its history, but we do not want to bore you. We hope you liked the article; if so, we encourage you to share it on Facebook.

To say goodbye, just remind you that if you would like to do the Camino de Santiago with the support of a company specialized in the pilgrim world, Santiago Ways is your agency. Get in contact with us and have a magical experience.

Buen Camino!